With a short training camp and no pre-season games, the Montreal Canadiens always faced a challenge to create chemistry and integrate its new players into the lineup. Every team is in the same situation, but Montreal is set to start the season with only one line and one defence pairing that played together last season.
The new additions have almost all spoken to the media this week since camp started and say they are integrating well. Returning players have also spoken highly of how the new players are looking in camp.
That’s only part of the equation, however. There’s learning systems, creating chemistry with teammates, and then there’s getting in game shape for the regular season. The start of the regular season will be like an extended pre-season, with the caveat that the games count.
In order to get off to a good start, the Canadiens (like most other teams) have planned two scrimmages. The first scrimmage on Thursday took a different feel than usual ones. In past years, scrimmages had two relatively even teams split with NHL and AHL talent. This year, there was no such split.
Other than Jake Evans, Paul Byron, Artturi Lehkonen, Victor Mete, Xavier Ouellet, and Carey Price, the remainder of Team White were people in the second practice group. It’s not often that those players, most bound for the taxi squad or the AHL, get a chance to go head to head against their NHL counterparts in a game situation. It becomes especially important when it comes to making an impression for limited taxi squad spots, and potential call ups before the AHL season starts in February.
With that opportunity, they impressed. The game ended 5-3 (with an empty-net goal, plus a sixth goal scored in the game’s overtime portion). Claude Julien, who coached the NHL-laden Red team, said after the game that the intensity was important.
“It’s what we wanted to see,” Julien said. “The White team worked so hard. Their work ethic and their competitiveness was even better than if we had played a team in the pre-season. You know that in pre-season games, you bring half your team and your veterans give just enough to get ready for the season. Today, we had more resistance and a better game than we would have in a regular pre-season game.”
“What we saw today was a bunch of players who really wanted to showcase themselves on that White team. Especially some of those young guys who play with Laval, they gave us the competition that we needed to make ourselves better,” he said.
Every advantage going into this season is needed, and the improved organizational depth and work that Joël Bouchard has done with a lot of the Rocket players have made this possible. Mete, Ouellet, Alex Belzile, and Jordan Weal all played post-season games for the Canadiens last season and now they are on the outside going into the season. That depth won’t only help them to prepare for this season, but with an unprecedented COVID-19 situation and condensed schedule it will also help them get through it.
The final scrimmage is set for Sunday night at 7:00 p.m. and will simulate a game routine with a morning skate before hand. The game will be broadcast on RDS2 and streamed online.
The early part of the season will be a feeling out process for almost every team this year. But with a shortened 56-game season, for those with playoff aspirations as the great Yogi Berra once said, “it gets late early out here.”